Former captain Brendon McCullum presenting Kane Williamson with the trophy for winning the test series against Pakistan (Getty Images)
Former captain Brendon McCullum presenting Kane Williamson with the trophy for winning the test series against Pakistan (Getty Images)

SportsApril 8, 2021

Greatness within grasp: The 12 months that will define the Black Caps

Former captain Brendon McCullum presenting Kane Williamson with the trophy for winning the test series against Pakistan (Getty Images)
Former captain Brendon McCullum presenting Kane Williamson with the trophy for winning the test series against Pakistan (Getty Images)

The Black Caps are on the verge of a year that will test the claim they’re the greatest cricket team this country has ever produced. Cricket enthusiast Michael Appleton looks ahead at the challenges that will define them.

Over the last few years, the Black Caps have been to places they’ve never been before. Ranked the number one test side in the world. The closest to a Cricket World Cup title it is possible to be without actually lifting the trophy. A roster of players constituting the broadest and deepest talent pool in the Black Caps’ history.

This has all translated into a record across all three formats of cricket, since the start of 2019, of Won 46-Lost 22. This means the Black Caps have had a higher win percentage (68%) in this period than any other side – edging out India on 65% and Australia on 63%.

Image: Tina Tiller

This Kiwi summer has felt celebratory – propelled by both the Black Caps’ success and the freest and most unencumbered crowds in world cricket. And what a celebration it has been:

  • a 17-3 win/loss record that would have made the West Indies in their prime proud;

  • four opponents (the West Indies, Pakistan, Australia and Bangladesh) all vanquished; and

  • the emergence of a staggering number of new talents – the most exciting being Devon Conway – as if to make clear to the cricketing world that the success of the Blacks Caps of the past few years could be just the beginning.

But after achievement and celebration comes sober examination and reckoning. Because there is a question that the Black Caps will answer, through their victories and their defeats, over the next 12 months: are they merely one of the best cricket teams that New Zealand has produced – or are they our first truly great one?

It is a common refrain in international cricket media and among online cricket fandom that the Black Caps are overrated. That New Zealand didn’t deserve to be the number-one-ranked test side or to qualify for the World Test Championship final. That we are home track bullies who haven’t achieved anything of significance away from home. While I find many of these arguments unconvincing, the good news is that the Black Caps have a chance to prove them wrong over the coming year on the cricket grounds of England and India.

Martin Guptill after being run out on the final ball of the Super Over (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Over the next 12 months, the Black Caps will face five key challenges:

  1. Early June: Two tests v England in England.

  2. Late June: World Test Championship final v India in England.

  3. October-November: World T20 in India.

  4. November: Two tests v India in India.

  5. February-March 2022: Two tests v South Africa in New Zealand

So, seven test matches and a World T20 tournament which will go a long way to defining the legacy of the Kane Williamson Black Caps. To prove their greatness, they’ll need to rise to a number of these challenges. But each and every item on this list will be tricky for the Black Caps:

  • England tests (June 2-14): We do not have a good record of test cricket in England. We’ve won just two series in 17 attempts; the last success was in 1999, when the English test side was at a very low ebb. Now, they’re an impressive team which is difficult to beat at home. All up, we’ve won just five tests in 54 attempts in England.

  • WTC final (June 18-22): The World Test Championship final against India will now be played at Southampton, having been moved from Lord’s for purportedly Covid-related reasons. Our chances in the final are arguably better than the English series that precedes it. England and New Zealand are the two countries that India finds it hardest to win test matches in: since 1990, they’ve won just four times in 27 tests in England. And it is looking like we will have the better preparation – ie the aforementioned two tests against England, which India looks unlikely to match against another opponent. But the move to Southampton does open up the possibility of pitch conditions less to the liking of our bowling attack and more to the liking of India’s than Lord’s would have been.

  • World T20 (October-November): The T20 World Cup in India will be a brief limited overs intermission among a year of heavy, meaningful test cricket. England and India are on current evidence comfortably the best T20 sides in the world – and we’ll need to play well even to make the semi-finals. Having said that, surprises shouldn’t be discounted: they happen more often in T20 cricket, we have a side bulging with exciting new talent, and we have a reasonable record in T20s in India (won six, lost three).

  • India tests (November): This will be the toughest of the five challenges, and we have a lower chance of succeeding here than with any of the other four. It’s not just that India has an almost flawless home record – although it does (in the last 20 years, it has lost only two of its 35 test series at home). It’s also that we have a terrible record there: we’ve won just two tests in 34 attempts there. Our last test win in India was in 1988, when David Lange was our prime minister and Sir Ed Hillary was our high commissioner in New Delhi. Our last test tour there, in 2016, yielded heavy defeats by 197, 178 and 321 runs respectively. So, this will be a very exacting challenge – and New Zealand will have to be at our very best just to compete.

  • South Africa tests (February-March 2022): We have had less test cricket success against South Africa (only four test wins) than any other opponent, even Australia. We have had no series wins against them, home or away. But I consider the home tests against South Africa early next year as the one of these five challenges that we should meet most comfortably. The South African side is in a weaker state than at any other point since its return to international cricket in the 1990s. They should be no match for the current Black Caps side at home.

So, what should we expect of the Black Caps as they face these five big challenges? I would consider three wins in these five to be a breakeven point for the Black Caps to be considered a great cricket side – and not just one of New Zealand’s best cricket sides.

If they won (to give the most plausible combination) the WTC final in Southampton as well as test series against England and South Africa, we would be: World Test Champions, likely ranked the number one test side again, and have recorded our first-ever test series victory over South Africa and our first in England in over two decades. Anything above three would be to move from the great to the historically great category.

But as any Black Caps fan who has followed the side for more than a decade will know, oftentimes hope and expectation turn into crushing disappointment. We should at least prepare for that potential eventuality. These five challenges range from formidable to almost certainly insurmountable – and so the Black Caps could play OK and return with just one win from these five challenges. If they do, all the doubters will say they were proved right – and the Black Caps cannot perform when away from the tender clutches of their home pitches.

I don’t think this sort of gutting failure will happen. A Black Caps team that has been built season by season, series by series, player by exciting player, is more resilient, calmer and more even-headed on the big stage.  A group of players that blew their big shot at the MCG in 2015 went to England four years later and matched the two most fancied sides in the world in an extraordinary semi and a superlative final.

The Black Caps are about to face the biggest and toughest year of their cricketing lives, with greatness within their grasp. Game on.

The Spinoff’s cricket podcast The Offspin is following the Black Caps on the road to the World Test Championship. Subscribe and listen on Apple PodcastsSpotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!